Walmart and its culinary pilot program, Rediscovering America, came to town last week to host a collaboration dinner with Tampa-based Rooster & the Till. Backed by the James Beard Foundation, the program is designed to advocate the importance of affordable, locally grown produce, and last week, the wine-paired feast at chef and co-owner Ferrell Alvarez’s Seminole Heights restaurant did just that.
As part of the program, Alvarez and four other kitchen wizards from different metropolitan locations across the country were asked to develop a dish inspired by one produce item from a local farm that can be found in Walmart stores. Each participating chef, by the way, has been recognized by the coveted James Beard Awards as a Best Chef semifinalist.
“The James Beard Awards recognize talent wherever it lies across the entire spectrum of America’s dynamic food scene, from big cities to small towns, from beloved neighborhood joints to temples of gastronomy,” said Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation, in a statement. “Chefs, restaurants, farmers and informed eaters help make America more vibrant and delicious for everyone, supporting our organization’s mantra that we all benefit from ‘good food for good.’”
Ahead of the intimate Rediscovering America dinner on Sept. 19, Alvarez shared his excitement for the opportunity to partner with the program — and rep the Bay area.
“I love representing Tampa,” the chef told CL. “I bleed Tampa Bay. Everything I do here is for my city. I’m absolutely stoked.”
Rediscovering America’s touring lineup of dinners kicked off in Charlotte, North Carolina, where chef Gene Kato of Upstream worked with jalapeño peppers provided by Bailey Farms.
Upcoming meals are also planned from Houston chef Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri Bake Lab + Shop (Village Farms’ miniature San Marzano tomatoes); Richmond, Virginia chef Brittanny Anderson of Metzger Bar & Butchery (organic thyme sourced from Shenandoah Growers); and Atlanta chef Rui Liu of Masterpiece (Bland Farms’ Vidalia sweet onions).
The five-course, tapas-style spread from Alvarez — who showcased the white, baby bella and portobello mushrooms churning out of Florida farm Monterey Mushrooms — served as the second dinner in this series. Rooster & the Till guests, including Walmart representatives and media outlets, sampled dishes ranging from eclectic creations like swordfish belly crudo to the house favorite: gnocchi with short ribs, smoked ricotta, stewed tomatoes and spicy pickled peperonata.
Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take the chef a long time to dream up a plate that called for Monterey’s mushrooms.
“I was honored to be chosen, and when I was given the freedom to create my own dish, I put something together almost instantly,” said Alvarez.
He has cooked with the farm’s fresh bounty in the past, too, as Rooster & the Till puts an emphasis on using local ingredients whenever possible.
This time around, however, Monterey products were incorporated into Alvarez’s smoked mushroom tartine with blue cheese duxelle (a minced mixture of mushrooms or mushroom stems), balsamic gel and dressed leaves.
“They are a big name in the market,” the chef said, “and the fact that they are local is obviously a big bonus for us, because we try to do as much local business as possible.”
Zellwood, east of downtown Orlando, is home to Monterey Mushrooms. The farm was originally founded in California in 1971, and its 80-acre property in the Orlando area followed three years later. Now, Monterey operates 10 farms nationwide.
According to sales manager Leslie Block, the farm supplies ’shrooms to Florida locations for Walmart year-round, so its involvement with Rediscovering America came about organically.
“We are both very community-centered,” Block said. “Walmart’s commitment to the customers fits hand-in-hand with our initiative to bring fresh, locally grown produce [to] the community.”
What’s growing in total? White, brown, baby bella and portobello varieties.
“Chef Alvarez chose to feature the baby bella, otherwise known as the cremini mushroom, which is gaining in popularity because the tissue is denser, allowing for a deeper mushroom flavor and a bit more of a wild taste,” said Monterey manager-in-training Tyler Simpson.
Recently, the farm launched Let’s Blend, a new line of pre-seasoned, finely diced mushrooms that’s expected to roll out to select Walmart stores in the near future. Let’s Blend aims to accommodate the still-growing “blenditarian” trend (yes, really), whose followers combine mushrooms with ground meat to create healthier food options that don’t compromise flavor.
“Mushrooms bring that umami, so you don’t feel like you’re missing out,” Block said.
Maybe the first thing that comes to mind when we think of local farms isn’t Walmart. But, hey, with Rediscovering America, the retail giant might be on to something. If nothing else, the program brings more awareness to the significance of the farm-to-table movement, and that’s a good thing.